CBS News Reporter Eric Salzman is traveling with the Dean campaign.
They came to Burlington for different reasons, the early Dean staffers, the ones who signed on when the former Vermont governor was still a "blip on the radar." Some came out of loyalty, some came because of their passion and some came for a job. And while they all hoped against hope that their "asterisk" of a candidate would emerge as a major player in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, none could have known that come the beginning of primary season, they'd all be players on the team to beat.
Campaign scheduler Sarah Buxton has worked for the governor since graduating from the University of Vermont four years ago. She was among the first handful of staffers; before there was money, before there was buzz.
"A lot of people who were around were like, 'Oh he doesn't have a chance,'" Buxton recalled. But she felt confident that voters would eventually come around to her way of thinking. "All he has to get is the name recognition," she thought early in the campaign.
Courtney O'Donnell, deputy communications director, read about Howard Dean years ago in a magazine profile while she was an undergrad at Georgetown University. Last December, she was making good money in the private sector, living in Manhattan's trendy West Village, and enjoying her leisurely Sunday mornings with the paper and friends over brunch.
"I still remembered about that guy I read about in college," O'Donnell said in an effort to explain why she picked up and drove to Burlington, Vt., in December of 2002. No one at Dean headquarters was answering her calls or returning her emails, so O'Donnell just showed up.
"They said, 'Great, how long are you here?' And I said, 'Well … 'til the end.'" O'Donnell went home, packed up and was back in Vermont by the middle of January. Almost 12 months later, she is still living in Burlington and working seven days a week for the campaign. When she arrived, there was no way to know how the campaign would measure up this close to the Iowa caucuses.
"I really felt like I was walking into a question mark," she said. "Most of January and February was spent just trying to find working phones and computers in the office."
"He was certainly the asterisk," said Buxton. "He was the under one-percent guy."
Michael Silberman, the campaign's national Meetup director, joined Buxton and O'Donnell as one of the original dozen staffers in February. "Of course he was the long shot," Silberman acknowledged. "But I wanted to give it a shot."
Though they all say they believe he could become a major contender, none of the original staff necessarily knew if he would.
Then Came February 21
The governor's staff – still about a dozen people – crammed around a 12-inch VCR-TV combo set in what was then the Dean for America headquarters in downtown Burlington, to watch Dean give an address to the Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington, D.C. "I think it was the finance side because they were the only ones with a TV," recalls Silberman.
The speech didn't air live, but ran later that night on C-Span. For many staffers, it became the transition point in the campaign.
"That's when we were like, 'Holy crap,'" Silberman said. "It was complete silence as we saw him take on a character we had never seen before – you know his vein popping."
Dean delivered the speech with such passion that both his staff and the political world took notice.
Larry Biddle, now the campaign's deputy national finance director, was also huddled around the television that night. "That was a moment when everybody felt really, really different. I think we all felt this was a possibility this was going to go somewhere." A good thing for Biddle, a more experienced political hand than many of the early staffers.
Having recently worked on two failed Senate campaigns, Biddle had been out of work for about three months and was living in Philadelphia when he was hired. He took a chance moving to Burlington, not knowing necessarily how a Dean candidacy would play out – or for how long. But the DNC speech in Washington proved to be a critical moment.
"When he walked out and said, 'What I want to know is …' he really took it on," Biddle said of Dean's speech.
His remark refers to Dean's recurring refrain during the speech. "What I want to know," said Dean, "is why are Democratic leaders supporting tax cuts?" "What I know to know … is why we're fighting in Congress about the Patients' Bill of Rights when the Democratic Party ought to be standing up for health care for every man, woman and child in this country?"
O'Donnell said the line quickly became a phrase campaign staff tried to work into every bit of office chatter. "What I want to know … is why didn't you get me a cup of coffee," one staffer might joke to another.
Andrea Minkow, a 25-year-old domestic policy analyst, started with the campaign just after the DNC speech. "Everyone was walking around the office saying, 'I want my country back,'" she mimicked in a gruff voice, making vein-bulging motions in her neck.
But the staff's reaction to the speech was no joke. Collectively they felt Dean had turned a corner, introducing himself to the national political scene in a new way. They waited for his return to Burlington a few days later to congratulate him. A lookout was deployed to tell the staff when the governor was about to walk into the office so they could applaud. As they watched him about to enter the building, poised to pounce and congratulate on his triumphant return, the staff was dismayed to see Dean turn the other way and, of all things, go pick up his laundry.
"I think he didn't get it," Biddle said, suggesting that the staff may have understood the impact of the speech before the candidate did. Buxton disagrees. "I think he realized the change as well," she said.
But they all agree that when Dean finally did enter the office, he was embarrassed by all the congratulations. After all, there was still much work to be done.
A Good Speech Is Nice, But…
The campaign still needed to set up its Web operations, for which it's subsequently become so famous.
Webmaster Nicco Mele, 26, was laying in bed at his home in New York City on a Saturday morning in April, having what he calls "one of those what am I going to do with my life moments" when his phone rang. It was Joe Trippi.
According to Mele, Trippi said something along the lines of, "I'm the campaign manager for Howard Dean. I don't have a lot of time. What do you do? How much do you want? (and I think he actually said that's because we don't have any money). And how soon can you move to Vermont?"
Mele said he could be there in ten days.
Trippi found Mele through Google. Mele attended a Howard Dean Meetup in New York back in March, expecting to find 20 to 30 people milling about a bar. Instead, there were hundreds, plus one surprise guest: Howard Dean.
"He shows up and you could see in his head… just absolute shock there were this many people there," Mele recalled. "I'm thinking, 'This is it baby.'"
But the next day, when Mele searched for Dean's campaign Web site on Google, he couldn't find it. So he started to pay out of his own pocket for Google ads to help others find the site. Soon enough, the phone call from Burlington came and another New Yorker was on his way to Vermont.
The only catch was, Mele didn't know how long he was going to be there. "I came because I liked the guy and because it was cool," he said. But would the campaign last?
Mele initially took a four-month leave of absence from his job as Webmaster at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York. But, he said, "Within two weeks of moving here I called my old boss and said I'm not coming back."
Joe Drymala, on the other hand, knew he was in it for the long haul from the beginning – and his early entry has paid off. A 26-year-old playwright from Brooklyn, N.Y., Drymala put a script on hold to try his hand at politics. He quickly rose through the campaign ranks, from pulling news clips to writing speeches.
"I think I was a little naïve about his chances," Drymala said. "I hoped he would be the nominee." But it wasn't until June 3, when the campaign reported 2nd quarter donations of more than $7 million, that he realized he had joined a campaign that could go all the way.
"I felt like I had bought stock in Microsoft in 1983," Drymala quipped. "I made a commitment against a lot of conventional wisdom and it really bore itself out."
Be Careful What You Wish For
As their leader is sure to mention on the road, not a single vote has been cast, so none of the Dean staffers likes to throw around the term "front-runner" casually. Yet they burst with pride when discussing how the campaign they chose to support has become what so few ever believed it could.
But just as pressure mounts on the candidate as his status grows, pressure increases for his staff as well. Andrea Minkow was working on the Dean health care policy when one of the nation's most prominent political reporters called for a quote – from her. "All of a sudden a huge weight descends on your shoulders as you realize the work you'e doing could impact every person in the country," she said. "It' almost daunting – the weight."
And then there's the work. "My family has basically given up on seeing me until the inauguration," said a clearly confident Courtney O'Donnell. By all accounts, the pace in Burlington headquarters was already frenetic last year. However, O'Donnell said, the intensity only continues to rise.
Welcome To Burlington – It's Cold Here
Like it or not, the early Dean supporters who left their homes in places like New York, Utah, Colorado and Washington D.C., now live in Burlington, Vt.
Howard Dean has said he sees no reason to exit the race before the convention, indicating his staff will be working up in Burlington until at least August even if he is not the nominee. If he does get the nod, all those early staffers will need to extend their apartment leases a few more months. They try to avoid any negative comments on their candidate's state, but there are some conditions they're still learning to accept.
"I hate the winter; can't stand the cold," Mele said. "I'm terrified of snow."
"It was two months of duffle bag and couch surfing," said Minkow. Initially unsure how long she'd have reason to stay in Burlington, Minkow was reluctant to lease an apartment. But when the money came rolling it at the end of the second quarter, she knew it was time to face facts: Burlington was her new home. "It's so damn cold," she lamented.
For Mele, the concerns with living in Burlington go beyond weather. "The food," he moaned. "There was just so much good food" back home in Queens, N.Y., he said, shaking his head glumly. "It hurts me. The Vermonters are great at breakfast. The best breakfast I ever had. The problem is, a man needs more than breakfast."
But Mele feels the experience is worth the sacrifice. "This is history," he said.
Likewise, Joe Drymala of Brooklyn will take the good with the bad. He is eager to see just how high his speculating in the political stock market can go. "I came here to play," he stated matter-of-factly.
When this group, made up of some of Howard Dean's earliest staffers, signed on during the so-called asterisk days, there was no way to know if they'd even be part of the game. Now, much to everyone's surprise, they're playing for keeps.
By Eric Salzman